Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mr. Spock and Homer Simpson

Mr. Spock and Homer Simpson


In The Upside of Irrationality, social economist Dan Ariely points out that society contains both Mr. Spock and Homer Simpson.  Spock and Homer are, of course, both fictional.  Mr. Spock is the hyperlogical, nonemotional alien in Star Trek.  The drama around him springs from his inability to understand the emotional drives of the humans around him and their failure to accept his reasoned conclusions.  Homer Simpson, the father on The Simpsons, is all emotion and impulse.  He is neither learned nor logical.  His flighty impulsiveness and lack of foresight are the sources of much of the show’s comedy.

Many intangible products are Spockian.  Computer programs are all logic and algorithms.  Tangible products tend to be Homerish.  Pants are stain resistant and may have a fifty-inch waistband.  However, many products are a mixture.  Cars have engines and drivetrains designed by logical engineers; but they are sold to Homers, who need the lap belts and airbags, by sex appeal.  As the car example suggests, people are all mixtures of Spock and Homer in varying degrees (and in everyone, that ratio changes from minute to minute).

The world of government and politics is also a mixture of the two.  Government is expected to be Spockian, with rational rules designed to achieve reasonable ends (unfortunately by using staffs that include many Homers).  But those reasonable rules are supposed to be enacted by Congress – largely composed of Homers and elected by means of utterly Homeresque election campaigns.

Political debates, including those on drug reform, show this same Spock versus Homer conflict.  However, they can be quite asymmetric.  Those proposing change or reform can be so Spockian that they sound like a graduate school seminar.  They have numbers and statistics, usually accompanied by charts and graphs.  They speak of goals and make projections.  They may even bring in experts, complete with jargon-laced theories.  Their audiences are soon asleep.

The defenders of the status quo, on the other hand, often wax Homeric.  They spread fear, promise paradise, bemoan degeneracy, and warn of slippery slopes (just imagine Homer on a snow board).  Sometimes they even bring donuts. When they use facts, those are outdated, cherry-picked, or out of context.  Their sound bites are carefully honed to fit on the evening news.  Ironically, these Homerish deliveries are frequently crafted by Spockian deliberation.

The result of this difference in argument style is that Homers, and those catering to Homers, usually win in public forums and political arenas.  If Spocks want their carefully derived plans to be adopted, they must coolly apply their logic to the art of persuasion.

As far as drug laws are concerned, first, use lots of concrete examples of both individuals hurt by drug laws or helped by drug – put a human face on it.  Then counter fears with hopes: street corners without drug dealers and violence, prisons replaced with college campuses, police forces without snitches or SWAT teams, derelicts replaced by productive citizens.  Highlight current costs and compare to future savings.

And don’t forget the donuts.

Drug law reformers must continue to apply Spockian methods to prove both the need for change and what changes would be most beneficial, but they must work with Homerish desires and impulses to make it so.  Thank Vulcan and act Springfield.

(P.S.: Pick up one of Dan Ariely’s books and give it a read.  It will enlighten, educate, and entertain you.  They are truly Spockian with a Homerish flair.  Find out what you do every day and why you do it and why your friends do the silly things they do.)

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